Blogs & Comment

How to help an employee return to work after a heart attack: Elaine Chin

(Photo: George Mattel/Getty)

(Photo: George Mattel/Getty)

February is over, and with it Heart Month draws to a close. I’m encouraged that money has again been raised for more research, and more people have become aware of how heart disease can be prevented. Heart attacks and related deaths are preventable, and it would seem we’re starting to get the message. Statistics Canada reports the cardiovascular death rate has dropped nearly 40% in the last decade, and that’s largely due to research advances in prevention efforts as well as surgical procedures and therapies. That’s good, but heart disease and stroke still costs the Canadian economy almost $21-billion every year in healthcare services, lost wages and decreased productivity.

Fortunately, workplace wellness programs deserve credit for the way they help prevent major risk factors for cardiovascular disease (smoking, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and lack of exercise). Yet we can do more. As Heart Month wraps up and the posters start to come down in workplaces around the country, I want to know: How many workplace programs are prepared to assist employees returning to work after a heart attack?

It’s odd for me to talk about what to do after an attack when I’m all about preventing them in the first place, but heart attacks are sometimes the traumatic wake up call that get people to really take prevention seriously. They wonder if they can once again be peak performers at work without fear of endangering their health further. They’re suddenly open to taking better care of themselvzes.

If you’re an employer with a great employee, you want them back in the trenches with you. But you can’t expect your Type-A personality employee to bounce right back, as driven as ever. That’s why every good wellness program should include modifications for staff returning after a health crisis. If they report to you, they may feel pressure to say they’re “all good now.” While that might appear to be true, there were reasons why that heart attack happened in the first place. I recommend having a conversation that shows you’re prepared to be flexible to have them back on the team while supporting their recovery. Suggest a phased-in back-to-work schedule to start—as the person becomes stronger, their hours will increase again.

Encourage them to take more breaks (that’s a tough one for Type As who feel guilty when relaxing). Hopefully they’re eating regularly – they need to sustain energy.

If you’re the person returning after heart attack, act on this advice yourself. And be prepared to delegate! That might be one of the hardest things to do if you’re a person who believes only you can do it right or you’ve never asked for help before. Asking for help isn’t showing weakness—it’s delegating for the highest productivity. The stress of trying to do it all yourself might have been one of the factors that caused you to develop a heart problem in the first place.

Elaine Chin, MD, MBA
Founder, Executive Health Centre